Survey of Consumer Experiences in Managed Care – News Release

New Survey Offers Insight Into Experiences of Managed Care Consumers

Majority of Sacramento Managed Care Consumers Report No Difficulty with Their Plan, But Over a Quarter Had Problems

For Immediate Release:
Wednesday, November 19, 1997

Heather Balas,
Kaiser Family Foundation, (650) 854-9400

Katie Salvas,
Sierra Health Foundation, (916) 922-4755

Magdalena Beltran-del Omo,
The California Wellness Foundation, (818) 589-6600

Lauren Schaefer,
Health Rights Hotline, (916) 551-2147

Medicaid Beneficiaries Report Highest Rate of Difficulty

Sacramento, California — Much national attention is currently focused on managed care issues, with a Presidential advisory commission considering a “bill of rights” for health care consumers and California policy-makers awaiting recommendations from a managed care task force. A new Survey of Consumer Experiences With Managed Care conducted in the Sacramento, California area – a region with one of the highest rates of managed care enrollment in the country – may help inform state and national debates about managed care regulation, offering new insight into difficulties people have with health plans and how they go about resolving them.

The survey finds that the majority of Sacramento managed care consumers cited no difficulties with their health insurance in the previous year, but that more than a quarter (27%) reported some problems. Of those managed care consumers experiencing problems, the most commonly reported difficulties included:

  • Delay or denial of care or payment (42%), such as disputes over coverage, delays or denials in authorization for care, and disagreement over the scope of benefits covered by the plan.
  • Limited access to physicians (32%), such as difficulty getting an appointment or limited access to specialists.
  • Concerns about quality of care (11%), including perceived problems with inappropriate or inadequate treatment, facilities, or diagnoses, or with obtaining test results.

The report found that consumers did not appear to know of the availability of existing resources, particularly from state agencies. Of the 1,014 managed care consumers in the survey who reported difficulties – of whom many had major problems unresolved after over two months – only four individuals reported calling either the California Departments of Corporations or Insurance for assistance or to complain. A total of 2% of consumers with difficulties contacted any state or local agency.

Thirty-eight percent contacted their health plan and 37% contacted their doctor, while a quarter took no action. (32% used two or more resources.) Of those who took no action, 26% didn’t think it would do any good, 24% thought it was not worth the time, and 14% did not know what to do.

About the same number of consumers resolved their difficulty relatively quickly as those whose problem took two months or longer to settle. Over a third of consumers (36%) resolved their difficulty in less than a month, while 13% achieved resolution in one to two months. Another 13% took two months or longer to resolve their problem, and 35% had not resolved their problem at the time of the interviews. (Almost three-fourths of unresolved problems were at least two months old.)

The survey was conducted to provide baseline information for a multi-year evaluation of a pilot consumer assistance program, the Health Rights Hotline, funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Sierra Health Foundation, and The California Wellness Foundation with initial support of $1.6 million for the first two years of the project. The program is the largest test of an independent assistance program for consumers in managed care in the nation. Over the next three years, additional data on cases handled by the Health Rights Hotline and a full-scale evaluation of its effectiveness will be conducted.

Len McCandliss, president of Sierra Health Foundation, said, “With over 90% of privately insured Sacramentans enrolled in managed care, the community has long been considered an HMO ‘laboratory.’ We believe that very soon practically every community in the nation will resemble Sacramento in terms of managed care prevalence.”

Medicaid and Medicare

Low-income people enrolled in managed care through Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California) experienced the highest rate of difficulty (42%). People insured through Medicare managed care (who account for 45% of all elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries in Sacramento county) experienced the lowest rate of difficulty (17%).

Reported Consequences of Difficulties

To provide information about the severity of the difficulties consumers experienced, the survey asked people several questions about the consequences they attributed to their difficulties (as opposed to the consequences of any underlying health condition). Of the 27% of people who reported a difficulty with their health plans:

  • 30% attributed a personal financial loss to the difficulty, including 12% who reported a financial loss of greater than $200.
  • 31% attributed time lost from work, school, or other major activity to the difficulty, including 16% who reported losing two days or more.
  • About one in ten (11%) reported experiencing a worsening of a health condition or developing a new condition as a result of the difficulty.

“Quality health care has to work for patients,” said Gary Yates, president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation. “These results show that while the majority of consumers reported no problems with their care, we must strive to make the system work for everyone. We see that even consumers with long-term continuity and familiarity with managed care have experienced difficulties.”

Consumer services

Most consumers said they would have used the services of an independent group to resolve their difficulty, had the option been available. The most popular requests were: a mechanism for lodging a complaint to prevent future problems for others (66%); information about consumer rights (62%); referral to other resources (60%); and assistance in understanding their health plan’s policies and procedures (54%).

“At a time when people across the country are complaining about managed care, this project is trying to find solutions,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, referring to the Health Rights Hotline. “It is the leading community-based effort in the nation giving people concrete help for their health plan problems.”


The Survey of Consumer Experiences in Managed Care was developed and analyzed by the Lewin Group of Fairfax, Virginia. The survey was administered by Survey Methods Group, Inc., of San Francisco, California. Screening interviews were conducted in June and August, 1997 with representatives from 4,419 Sacramento households contacted at random by phone. Of these 3,768 were managed care consumers, upon whom survey results were based. For Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, managed care enrolles were identified based on the names of their plans. Since traditional fee-for-service coverage is virtually non-existent in the Sacramento area, all privately insured people were categorized as being in managed care. The margin of error is +/- 3% for most questions. These findings are preliminary; a final report will be released at a later date.

Additional information, including a complete copy of this preliminary report, can be obtained by calling the Kaiser Family Foundation’s toll-free publication request line at 800-656-4533 and requesting document #1344.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, California, is a nonprofit, independent national health care philanthropy and is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries. Sierra Health Foundation, located in Sacramento, supports health and health-related activities in Northern California. Based in Woodland Hills, The California Wellness Foundation’s mission is to improve the health and wellness of the people of California.

Health Rights Hotline

The Survey of Consumer Experiences in Managed Care was conducted as part of a broader program to support and evaluate the Health Rights Hotline, a free, independent source of information and assistance for health care consumers in California’s El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, and Yolo counties. The Health Rights Hotline, which began providing services in June 1997, is the first program of its kind in the nation to assist consumers regardless of the type of health plan they have and regardless who pays for care – whether an employer, individual, Medicare, Medi-Cal, or CHAMPUS. The Health Rights Hotline – a program of the Center for Health Care Rights in Los Angeles – is funded for a four-year pilot period to:

  • improve consumers’ access to health care by educating and assisting them to be responsible, informed, and empowered;
  • improve the health care system in the four-county Sacramento area by collecting and analyzing information on the types of issues consumers face, and providing feedback to health plans, health care providers, purchasers, regulators, and the public regarding consumers’ experiences; and
  • test this program as a model for other consumer-oriented programs in California and the nation.

“The survey results point to the role that independent consumer assistance organizations like the Health Rights Hotline can play in helping consumers navigate an often confusing system,” noted Peter Lee, Health Rights Hotline Project Director.

The Health Rights Hotline is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and can be reached toll-free by consumers in the four-county service area at (888) 354-4474 or (916) 551-2100.

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